High flying fun on the summer slopes | VailDaily.com

High flying fun on the summer slopes

Tamara Miller
Bret Hartman/Vail DailyJay Lucas, 38, takes air off a jump Wednesday on Vail Mountain's Magic Forest downhill course.

Chris Del Bosco hops on his bike, balances on the pedals for a moment, then pushes toward the first steep, 20-foot drop.He flies down a winding dirt trail, bouncing over rocks, careening through hair-pin curves so tightly that at times he seems to be almost perpendicular to the ground. His full-suspension bike rattles as he maneuvers down the rocky path. Clouds of dust billow then dissipate into a thick of pine trees. He screeches to a stop, turns around and looks up at a crowd of downhillers waiting for their turn. “That was sick!” one exclaimed in approval.Rewind about two years and this scene would have been illegal, if not impossible, on Vail Mountain. But things have changed since a group of local downhill riders started prodding Vail Resorts ski company to capitalize on an ever-growing summer sport.

“We went from nothing a few years ago to some of the sickest riding in the state,” said Jay Lucas, a local rider and owner of Wheel Base bike shop.With the ski company’s support, a large group of volunteers spent last summer creating downhill mountain biking trails. This year the effort has continued, with crews maintaining previously built trails and then adding new paths and features. The result, say mountain officials, is a vastly improved trail system that is safe, environmentally sound and so attractive to downhillers it lured the Honda bike team to Vail to test the latest downhill mountain bike technology. (see sidebar)”There’s a big buzz in the industry about Vail right now,” said Ephraim Learned, a former BMX racer and manager of Vail’s bike trail crew.

Two years ago, local riders were more concerned downhill biking would banned from Vail Mountain. Beaver Creek had nixed “extreme” downhill biking, characterized as fast riding, top-to-bottom, nearly straight down the hill. Meanwhile, Vail Mountain officials were worried the wear and tear of downhill mountain biking was damaging some areas. A loosely-knit group called the Downhill Rider Advocacy Group, led by Lucas, suggested an alternative to a ban: Create fun, challenging, but erosion-resistant trails on Vail Mountain for downhill bikers which would in turn discourage them from marring the slopes with renegade trails. The ski company agreed.Volunteers helped create the majority of the mountain’s downhill trails last summer and likewise, eliminated access to the renegade trails of the past, said Jen Brown, spokeswoman for Vail Resorts. This summer, a smaller group of volunteers led by the ski company are working to maintain and improve the trails created last year, while adding a few features, as well.The new system is safer, said Julie Rust, who oversees trail operations on Vail Mountain and is head of the ski patrol in the winter.”Renegade trails are unsafe from every angle,” she said. Not only are these unplanned trails unsafe to ride on because they tend to plow straight down a hill, causing riders to pick up too much speed, but the very fact they are unplanned makes it difficult when emergencies arise. “Mountain rescue doesn’t know where they are,” Rust said. A big effort this year was put into creating signs that designate which trails should be used for what. In addition to downhill biking, Vail Mountain is used by hikers and cross-country bikers during the summer. But those activities don’t necessarily mesh well together, Rust said. Now trails are identified by their use. Anyone exiting the Lionshead Gondola at Eagle’s Nest immediately runs into a large billboard with color-coded trails indicating which are used for what. The billboard also lists a difficulty rating for those trails, as well as several warnings about the importance of downhill mountain biking safety equipment. The intent is to keep hikers off downhill trails, and vice versa.There are some multi-use trails on Vail Mountain as well, but traffic on those trails move at the pace of the slowest user, as a general rule.”I think it’s having a big impact,” Rust said. “I think this is a big educational piece. The downhill message is clear.”

The crew working on trails this summer come from a variety of backgrounds. There’s a teenager who likely gives his mother gray hair working alongside gray-hair himself. There’s a pro rider, an ex-pro rider and bike shop owner, and everyone in-between. Most of them volunteer once a week to work on the trails – they work on all the trails, not just downhill mountain biking, but downhill mountain biking is clearly their passion.

Learned, the leader of the pack, grew up racing BMX bikes and guides the trail design. On Wednesday, Learned had the crew shoveling away on Magic Forest, an expert, black diamond downhill trail. Magic Forest is a windy path that starts just below Eagle’s Nest. There are plenty of new features on the trail this year, including berms built along the side – which help riders maintain speeds through a turn, Learned said – some rock piles and a log section. When the crew isn’t working, they like to race down this length of single-track and launch off the log section. Several say they ride the mountain three to four times a week.”This is ‘pay dirt,'” Lucas said, pausing his shoveling routine to chat a bit. While working on the trail they encountered a group of riders from Northern California. The group let the crew know they appreciated the hard work. Charlie Snyder, transaction attorney and downhiller, is the oldest member of the volunteer crew. He picked up the sport in 2001 and has been hooked since. Recently, a group of friends came out to Colorado to do some downhill mountain biking. They intended to spend their entire stay riding the slopes in Keystone. “Nothing against Keystone,” Snyder said. “But they ended up riding five days in Vail.”Riding downhill trails isn’t just about speed, it’s about being technical, Rust said. The trail crew keeps that in mind while building new features along a trail, intent on getting riders to make full use of their thousand-dollar, full-suspension bikes.

Technical skills and control are what it’s all about on a trail built just this year. Called Old Nine Line, this trail connects Magic Forest to the bottom of the hill. Anyone too intimidated by the steepness of this trail can take a road down to the bottom instead – and several riders do. “This would be a triple black-diamond if there were such a thing,” Lucas said. The trail is built along the old route for chairlift 9. The crews guesses that the slope reaches 40 degrees at one point. It’s been open for about six weeks. This is where Del Bosco, 22, takes the aforementioned plunge down the trail. Del Bosco, a pro rider who has been ranked the fourth fastest in the U.S., said he’s enjoyed being a part of Vail’s entrance into the downhill biking world. “I’ve been able to be in the process of building these trails,” he said. “I’ve raced all over the country… and these are some great trails.”Staff writer Tamara Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607, or tmiller@vaildaily.com.

Honda’s got a new bike in townWhen Honda engineers were scouting for a place to film riders on their state-of-the-art $75,000 Team G-Cross Honda RN01 mountain bike, they established some qualifying criteria: Proximity, altitude and terrain. Vail met all three. The Honda mountain bike race team recently competed in Aspen, so Vail was a good, convenient locale, said Martin Whiteley, team director. At 8,150 feet above sea level, Vail also has the altitude needed to keep team members acclimated for their upcoming race in Durango. And the trails are simply “good fun,” said Greg Minnaar, Honda’s team member from South Africa. Minnaar is the 2003 World Champion, 2003 NORBA Champion and the 2003 World Cup Champion. Minnaar has yet to try out Vail’s new downhill trails, but he did race here in the World Championship downhill a few years back.

“It took the team a while to get used to it,” Whiteley said. The bike, which is valued at more than most people’s cars, has an internal transmission. It weighs slightly less than the traditional beefy downhill bike – 39.5 pounds compared to the standard 41 pounds, Whiteley said. The bike is still powered by the rider, like any other bike, but is designed to allow users to switch gears more efficiently. On a normal bike, cyclists have to pedal through gear switches to make the adjustment. Not so with Honda’s bike.Minnaar nabbed the U.S. World Cup Championship this year, by three seconds, no less, while riding Honda’s newest racing bike. The team will be in Vail this week and next week.Tamara Miller is a reporter for the Vail Daily, based in Vail, Colorado. She can be reached at tmiller@vaildaily.com.

Support Local Journalism